Monthly Archives: October 2011

Gilbert Ryle and the Proper Referents of Psychological Vocabulary

When we say “Bob sees a cat” or “I see a cat”, what does the term “see” refer to? If you are of a scientific bent, then you might say that verbs like “see” refer to internal physiological events such as patterns of brain activity. Alternatively, if you are of a psychologistic bent, you might think that the term “see” refers to internal mental events of some kind. Gilbert Ryle thinks both of these positions are mistaken.

Ryle uses the example of winning a race to illustrate his point. Imagine a hard-nosed materialistic scientist who was conducting a study of the physiological processes and cognitive functions intrinsic to a runner’s natural makeup. He studies the runner’s muscle tissues, brain fibers, sweat glands, heart function, etc. in painstaking detail. But now he begins to investigate whether or not that runner has won a race. He puts tissues under the microscope and inspects the entirety of the runner’s intrinsic physiological and psychological makeup but he just cannot find out whether or not the runner has won a race or not.

Ryle thinks that the scientist fails in his investigation of whether the runner has won a race because he is looking in the wrong place and the wrong way. The proper thing to do to tell if the runner has won a race is to investigate into whether the runner recently competed against rivals, did not cheat, and crossed a socially-recognized finish line. Likewise, Ryle thinks that, in determining whether or not Bob has seen the cat, one does not need to open up Bob’s body and brain to discover whether or not seeing has occurred. For Ryle, to look for “seeing” as if it were an internal physiological event or process would be like looking for “winning” by opening up the body and brain of a runner. A big motivation for Ryle’s view is the fact that a person ignorant of the physical details of his or her own brain can clearly still determine whether he or she is successfully seeing a cat. So, Ryle thinks, the verb “see” does not refer to inner physiological processes. Thus, Ryle thinks that seeing is not a process at all, but something else.

Ryle contends that because facts about psychological verbs like “see” are not discovered in the same way as facts are about physiological processes, it is a “mistaken assumption that perceiving is a bodily process” (109). There are at least two ways to read this claim: strong and weak. The strong version is that Ryle is making a bold metaphysical claim about how critters actually perceive the world. On this strong reading, internal bodily processes are just not involved in perceiving at all. This reading is untenable because Ryle probably did not mean to overturn any neurophysiological facts of perception. The weak reading is more plausible. It says that Ryle thought that psychological discourse is of an entirely different sort than physiological discourse. On the weak reading, when Ryle says “Perceiving is not a bodily process”, he means to say that talk about perception is not on par with talk about bodily processes.

In my opinion, the philosophical force of the weaker claim is reduced given the fact that psychological discourse is not fixed or stable or even universal. Given the almost certain possibility that human languages will continue to evolve, what is the philosophical significance of saying that right now the folk psychology of English speakers is different from our scientific psychology? Is this a necessary truth or a contingent historical fact? Following a Sellarsian line, if we could coherently imagine a society of techno-elites growing up with portable brain scanners permanently attached to their skulls and the schooling necessary to effortlessly interpret the scanning analyses displayed on their wrist-computers, then we could imagine a society where the way facts are discovered about the psychological world would essentially be no different from the way facts are discovered in the physical world.

Replicating such technology in the here and now isn’t completely fantastical either; it would only be a matter of sophisticated biofeedback making information available in a format accessible by our brains. However, if you were inclined to accept a higher-order theory of consciousness, then in a way we already have biofeedback of our brains insofar as what makes higher-order thought special is our brain’s way of reacting to itself, of perceiving its own perceptions. There is an analogous point to be made about thinking itself insofar as in some scientific circles it is fashionable to talk about conscious thought as overt speech that has been sufficiently internalized.

It seems then that Ryle’s contention that perceptual verbs do not refer to internal physiological processes and cognitive functions could turn out to be both metaphysically and grammatically incorrect given we specify the relative technological sophistication of the society in question. If we lived in a more scientifically literate society, we could easily imagine (à la Richard Rorty’s Myth of the Antipodeans) psychological verbs referring to internal physiological processes (available to view through portable brain scanners). And if this is true, the philosophical force of Ryle’s argument is diminished, for what else is Ryle doing except pointing out the merely sociological fact that right now our language games about psychology are dissimilar from our language games about physiology? If this is only a contingent fact of history, I take it that, following Sellars, the interesting philosophical point is not that we have such language games, but that the language games are not fixed, and in fact indicate an evolutionary trajectory. Just as a child eventually internalizes overt speech into conscious thought, a scientifically literate society could internalize computer generated analyses of brain scanning data.

It would only be a matter of adjusting to new methods of information extraction. If Ryle only wants to point out a sociological fact about current linguistic practice, then that is fine, and might still be philosophically illuminating in some respect. But such sociological commentary does nothing to diminish the metaphysical force of the physiologists who insists that perception is nothing but a bodily process in reaction to internal and external perturbations. And since we could imagine such bold metaphysical claims about perception catching fire and eventually establishing itself throughout the world’s language games, the facts Ryle discovers about psychological discourse are not necessary, but contingent.

In a way then, I have not shown that Ryle is wrong in his analysis of ordinary English use of verbs like “seeing”. Obviously Ryle is right that a peasant farmer is not referring to his or her inner brain states when proclaiming “I see the cows in the field”. But this is a contingent fact of history. If the farmer had been born in a different technological society, it is plausible that the facts might be different. Ryle’s point is that the current criteria for successful perception do not depend on any knowledge of physiology; we can know we or others have seen something without knowing anything about brain states. Acknowledging this, my point is that despite this current fact of how we understand the concept “seeing”, it does nothing to diminish the philosophical force of the materialist who insists that perceiving really is just an internal bodily process. The thing standing in the way of the materialist changing our language games then is not metaphysical truth, but only convention and inconvenience.

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Some thoughts on why I would kill myself in order to teleport

Imagine a future society with teleportation technology. Instead of having to spend all day traveling to get from Orlando to L.A., you can now step into a teleporter booth, hit a glowing green button and be more or less instantly transported anywhere on the planet. Here’s how it works: the machine scans your full atomic structure, stores the pattern, then beams it to another teleporter, where a matter-assembler puts you back together again from a stock pile of atoms. You have used this machine many times with no qualms whatsoever. Now, imagine that one day you step in the booth, press the green button, but nothing happens. You are then told in a polite, robotic voice, “I’m sorry traveler, but something went wrong. Although we successfully scanned your body and reassembled you in L.A., the disintegration process failed. Would you please press the purple button in order to finish the disintegration process?”

Horrified, you run out of the booth because there is no way you are going to commit suicide by pressing the purple button. And suicide is exactly what it is to push the purple button. This twist in the teleporter story is meant to alert us to deep issues in the philosophy of personal identity. The point of the twist with the purple button is to pump our intuitions to the effect that any sane person would refuse to use the teleporter at all. After all, the only difference between the normal operation and the purple button case is that you failed to die in the latter. This is supposed to show that there is no continuity between the original person and the duplicate made in the matter-assembler. After all, if there is continuity, why would you not press the purple button? If you sincerely thought your personal identity would be preserved in the reassembly process, and you knew the machine had already reassembled you elsewhere, why would you not press the purple button? The upshot of this analysis is supposed to be that using a normal teleporter is akin to suicide. Identity is not preserved.

I’m not convinced. I would use a teleporter if I knew there was a 99.999999999999999999…% chance of it working properly. But I would not press the purple button. This is not a contradiction. There is in fact a crucial difference between the green button and the purple button. Only a fool would press the purple button, but only a fool would refuse to press the green button if it was working properly. What’s the difference? The green button is useful. It does something, namely, allow you to efficiently travel from location A to B. The purple button, however, does nothing. It kills you. Therefore, any rational agent should have no qualms pressing the green button but would be a fool to press the purple button (unless they wanted to commit suicide). But let’s say you are the traveler in the purple button situation. You know there is a near physical duplicate of you out there somewhere. You know that the duplicate will fulfill whatever responsibilities you have in L.A. What should you do? Well, whatever you want. If you want to travel to New Zealand, you can press the green button and utilize that amazing technology to achieve your desires. The fact that you have a duplicate does not matter. You have no obligation to kill yourself. Why commit suicide when you can travel the world by simply pressing a button? It would be foolish not to use something that had a 99.999999999999999999…% success rate in doing something so incredibly useful.

Thus, I propose that any rational agent, knowing the extreme usefulness of the teleporter and it’s normal success rate, should use the teleporter but shouldn’t press the purple button (unless the agent actually wants to die). It would be quite irrational to refuse to use the teleporter out of the fear that your identity wouldn’t be preserved. The reassembled clone is atom-by-atom identical to the you that pressed the green button. You can’t get any better in terms of continuity of identity than an atom-by-atom preservation. But suicide is irrational unless you want to die. If your atom-by-atom duplicate wanted to use the machine to travel, then presumably that person did not want to commit suicide (unless they were teleporting to an ideal place to commit suicide). Therefore, given that you would have identical desires, it would be strange to want to commit suicide by pressing the purple button given you just previously had a traveling mindset. There is thus no contradiction between using a working teleporter but not pressing the purple button.

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An Extended Tractarian Argument for the Simplicity of Objects

I’ve been getting back into Wittgenstein lately. For my proseminar at Wash U we had to read the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus for a weekly assignment. I had never really studied it in depth before, but I now have a new found appreciation for early Wittgenstein. I’m fascinated by the metaphysical claims in the book. For example, 2.02-2.0212 might be charitably understood as endorsing the following reductio ad absurdum argument for the idea that any meaningful language must presuppose the existence of metaphysically simple objects:

1. Assume that a meaningful language does not necessarily presuppose there being metaphysically simple objects i.e. objects that are not composed of further objects.
2. Assume that in this language you can successfully refer to ordinary middle-sized objects (which are not simple).Accordingly, assume the statement “The cat is orange” is meaningful.
3. If “The cat is orange” is meaningful, it’s because, at the very least, in saying it a speaker presupposes that the cat is an object.
4. If (1) is true, and if the statement “The cat is orange” presupposes a distinct cat exists, then it also presupposes that the cat is a metaphysically nonsimple object (i.e. it is composed of further objects)
5. If statements about a cat presuppose that it is composed of further objects, and (1) is true, then those objects it is presupposed to be composed of are also presupposed to be nonsimple and composed of further objects, ad infinitum.
6. Thus, if (1) is true, the presuppositions built into the statement “The cat is orange” are infinite in complexity.
7. By the same reasoning, the presuppositions about the cat built into the opposing statement “The cat is not orange” are also infinite in complexity.
8. It seems natural to think that if talk about objects like cats has an infinite complexity in its presuppositions about how the cat is composed, then the statement “The cat is orange” can only be logically distinguished from the statement “The cat is not orange” if the most elementary parts of the presupposed infinite complexes of objects are different in some distinctive manner. [2.0201, 2.0211-2, 4.221]
9. By (1), the language is not committed to there being such things as “most elementary parts”; everything is composed of further things ad infinitum, for any posited basic entity would not be basic if it was assumed there were no basic entities. In other words, there would be no “substratum” for the regress to bottom out at; no substance [2.021]
10. Therefore, by (8) and (9), two opposing statements in the language about a complex object with infinite presuppositional complexity cannot be logically distinguished from each other simply on the basis of their elementary presuppositions because it seems strange to say two infinite complexes are different unless their (basic) members are different, but this is ruled out by (1), which assumes there are no basic members.
11. If two opposing statements are logically indistinguishable in the totality of their presuppositions, then they cannot refer to different states of affairs.[2.02331]
12. If two opposing statements cannot refer to different states of affairs, then the statements are not meaningful, for each statement could not be true or false.
13. The statements “The cat is orange” and “The cat is not orange” are obviously meaningful, so we must reject (1), since that is what got us into the infinite regress.
14. Thus, any meaningful language that refers to objects at all must be logically committed to the existence of metaphysically simple objects i.e. objects that are not composed of further objects.

Arguably premise (8) is the most problematic and controversial, for it might be begging the question. For this I don’t know how to repair the argument. Either you get it or you don’t. This might be a clash of intuition between people who have a gut feeling that it’s “parts all the way down” or that it bottoms out somewhere. I used to not have a strong opinion on this, but I am now inclined to think it bottoms out somewhere. I take this to be a logical fact, and not a fact of the universe, for only science can tell us what the actual bottom to reality is, be that quarks or whatever physics tells us. The intuition that reality bottoms out is driven by the inner logic of the idea of finite objects being composed of parts. It just seems downright strange, almost mystical, to say that a finite object like a coffee mug is composed of an infinite number of smaller objects. Surely it makes sense to say it is composed of a great many smaller objects, but I see no reason for thinking this amount infinite. Objects must bottom out according to the sheer logic of our ways of talking about composition. If this is right, then we arrive at a different interpretation of Wittgenstein’s argument for metaphysical simples than is commonly given. The concept of simple objects is not arrived at by seeing it in our language and then saying because language mirrors reality there really are metaphysical objects. Rather, the argument is transcendental in the sense that Wittgenstein shows that if we are going to talk about objects at all, we must presuppose metaphysically simple objects. So the Wittgensteinian point is not that language mirrors reality therefore simple objects exist (“One cannot, e.g. say “There are objects” 4.1272). The point is that language use logically commits us to the idea of there being simple objects when discussing objects. As Wittgenstein says, “Logic is transcendental” [6.13].

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